WELCOME to Gorgeous Ladies of Historical Comedy. According to the annual Presidential Proclamation, March is Women’s History Month. To celebrate, over the next five weeks, G.L.O.C. NICOLE DRESPEL will shine spotlight on a few of her favorite funny women from the olden days. First up: Hrotsvitha, a German nun** from the 10th Century.
Okay. I know you just read the words “German” and “nun” and “10th century” and your eyes rolled all the way back in your brainspace, but stay with me here. Hrotsvitha is generally considered the world’s first female playwright. Nice. She’s also the first Western playwright at all since Rome fell—quite the feather in her habit. Most importantly, she’s a total comedy badass. While her religious contemporaries were writing long treatise on celibacy or staring at their own bellybuttons ‘til they saw God, Hrotsvitha recognized people wanted to, like, enjoy what they read. In the preface to her manuscript, she states that she was motivated by the belief that those sinful dead pagans shouldn’t get all the good stories. BAM. Suck it, Plautus.
Don’t let the whole living-in-Benedictine-Abbey thing throw you. In the Middle Ages, that’s where all the good books were. And Hrotsvitha was a total book nerd. She read the church stuff, she read the Greek stuff. She also wrote the legends of various saints and a history of Emperors Otto I and II. And by the way, nuns can be really cool. Right, Sister Mary Clarence?*
Most of her plays revolve around martyrdom and chastity, and that’s quite an uphill battle to find the funny. But she did. In Dulcitius, an evil governor is struck blind (or just confused) when he tries to take advantage of three virtuous maidens. Instead of embracing them, he starts hardcore making out with everything he can find in the kitchen. In Gallicanus, Paul and John take on Emperor Julian and totally outsmart him. When they’re not taking him down a peg, they’re providing short, dead-pan responses and rhetorically asking each other, “What do you think of this guy?”
There’s some scholarly debate over the theatricality of Hrotsvitha’s plays. Some argue they were meant to be performed with full sets and costumes. Other maintain they’re “closet plays”—which means they were only intended to be read, either by one’s lonesome or in a small group. (Note: I was going to make a joke about the definition of “closet plays” but I couldn’t make it happen so I gave up. And, you’re welcome.) I read them by myself and loved them, but if you’re interested in mounting a full production of Pafnutius—or teaching me how to pronounce it—give me a ring.
*Sister Mary Clarence wasn’t actually a nun, obviously. But she hung out with nuns and it was awesome. If you don’t get this reference, you have SO MUCH HOMEWORK TO DO before the next time we hang out.
**Hrotsvitha wasn’t a nun, either. She was technically a Canoness. But I realize not everyone gets a history boner over medieval clerical definitions, so I won’t go into it here.
Nicole is a writer, performer, storyteller and nerd. Check her out at nicoledrespel.com.